Sonia Boyce: Exhibition Review

Sonia Boyce at Manchester Art Gallery

The huge dual screens within Manchester Art Gallery have a great initial impact. The video is loud, colourful and flipping massive. But the excess noise from the second video installation in a separate space, that kind of spoils it. This is of course at no fault to the artist Sonia Boyce, but it’s a bit of a niggle, it’s annoying that that was what I noticed first. It just came across as a messy. Bit of an over-site from Manchester Art Gallery I reckon.

The video itself, named ‘Crop Over‘, was full or pairings. Shown on a dual screen, the initial themes to me, seemed to be movement and music. However, there was also history and culture, colour and costumes. The video showed a series of clips which emphasised these themes including videos of a Barbados carnival, steel pan drums, and interviews with historians discussing tradition dance. There were clips which showed heavily costumed performers (one in particular was wearing stilts), isolated within a huge English country garden and manor house. This came across as a juxtaposition of character and place, perhaps linking back to culture, heritage and identity. Identity seemed to be the commonality I picked up throughout the rest of her work.

The description of the video reads; ‘…festival in Barbados in relation to the history of Harewood House in Leeds, and its role in the Transatlantic slave trade, moving from contemplative mood to the world of masquerade and the carnivalesque.’

I find video pieces quite hard to critique. Unlike a sculpture or painting, these are easier to see and understand the work that went into them. Whereas a video, unless it has the budget of David Attenborough and BBC Earth, they don’t always come across as ‘beautiful’ things. They are a great way of telling a story, and of creating character and life of a piece, but does a video not then require a film critic? What I am trying to say is, it’s not always easy to judge the ‘art-y-ness’ of a video. And this in itself may deter some people from the exhibition, people may not ‘get it.’

Within the same Gallery Space, you’ll find a huge series of black and white photographs named ‘The Audition.’ These images were taken in what was once Manchester’s Cornerhouse (now Home MCR) after inviting people to come along and try on an afro wig. The photographs are like a before and after documentary – before the wig, as they are themselves, and afterwards whilst wearing the wig, becoming a new person. Some of the participants seemed to become a new character. This got me thinking about the afro and what it represents. A costume? A throw-back to crazy fashion? Playing dress up? I Googled ‘comedy wig’ and yes there were a mix of hair types, but the afro was in there too.

Some of the participants looked uncomfortable. Was this just because of the situation, put in front of a camera, wearing something that isn’t ‘them.’ What does hair mean to people? Identity, image, part of your first impression? When you describe someone you mention their hair or lack there of. You change your hair to change your style. Illness can cause hair-loss, some religions require your hair to be covered. It’s a big deal to people. So perhaps some people do feel uncomfortable wearing hair that doesn’t represent them. As you can see, I really liked this piece as it got me thinking about so much. The simple act of wearing a wig can mean a ton of things to many people, and I think that really does come across here in Sonia Boyce’s work. My bug here, is that this is in the same space as ‘Crop Over’ so that noise and the light from the video is constantly there, in the corner of your eye.

The second video piece we saw of Sonia’s (the one adding the extra noise) was named ‘Six Acts’. Six individual screens were mounted next to each other, each showing a different performance by an actor playing a character within Manchester Art Gallery. These actors performed within the gallery, interacting with the surrounding paintings. The actors became part of the art, as though they had stepped out of the painting. For example, there was the rowdy sports fan, dressed as though he was in Russel Crowe’s Gladiator. He was sat watching the races – a classic painting of horses racing in an amphitheatre. He drank beer, shouted at the painting of as though the races were live, chanting like a hooligan. Another, dressed in drag, was like a ring leader in a circus, hosting a show. He gathered people in and queued them up to ‘take a peek’. It was like something from Amsterdam Red Light district. Pay a buck for a sneaky look. What the participants were looking at was a greek painting of ‘Sappho 1877’ where her breast were revealed.

These videos were comedic but also made you look again at what you may have missed. Living most of my life in Manchester and always being a fan of art, I perhaps do take Manchester Art Gallery’s collecting for granted. I rarely wander through the permanent displays and head straight to the modern side and new exhibitions. This performance piece by Sonia Boyce flips that on its head. It forces the audience to take another look at the work around them and think about the characters and individuals within those paintings. This piece was positioned in a much smaller space than that of the video ‘Crop Over.’ Very little space for a crowd to gather and watch it, so that was slightly annoying.

Sonia’s work carries a lot of meaning, and each piece is really powerful and packed with themes and connotations. Her work is grand and bold and in your face. So much so that I don’t think Manchester Art Gallery is set up in a way to handle it. I am no curator, but I can’t help but think they could have set this retrospective up better. Why were the photographs from ‘The Audition’ not in a room of their own? I think the impact would have been massive if you were physically surrounded by all those photographs. They should have been in the room where ‘Six Acts’ was on display, and the ‘Six Acts’ piece should have been a whole other area altogether to stop the noise clash with ‘Crop Over’.

So, Sonia – great work! Loved it, took a lot from it. Manchester Art Gallery, apologies, I just think it could have been set up a little better.

The Sonia Boyce exhibition runs till 22nd July at Manchester Art Gallery.

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